[This article began as a study of lofting or tossing nuclear weapons.I became fascinated with the notion of using the prop-driven Skyraider for this purpose, and the story evolved into an account of what it would have been like to drive this WWII-era plane to Sevastopol on the first day of World War III. The article published in Foundation magazine of the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola in its Fall 1999 issue. -- Dan Ford]
What should you fear? Well, see how this fits:
You're Breakeven Four Zero One--one man, one engine, one bomb. The year is 1957, the month February, the hour 0200. You're sitting on your parachute in the tidy cockpit of a Douglas AD-6 Skyraider, better known as the Able Dog, checking its systems by the small gooseneck flashlight that hangs from a chain around your neck. A Wright R-3350--the engine that powered the B-29 super-bomber of World War II--swings a four-bladed propeller through a circle almost 14 feet in diameter. Just behind the whirling blades, there hangs a slenderized version of the Fat Man atomic bomb that on August 9, 1945, laid waste to Nagasaki.
The MK 7 weighs 1,700 pounds and measures 15 feet long by 30.5 inches in diameter. If you need to return to USS Forrestal with it still on the centerline--tires flat and oleo struts compressed--the nuke will clear the steel flight deck with six inches to spare. You're sweating beneath your pressure suit, flight suit, survival vest, and inflatable life preserver.
On the angle to your left, the jet pukes in their A4D Skyhawks are being shot into the night like so many rockets. Breakeven Four Zero One doesn't rate a catapult: you circle the flashlight, the flight-deck officer gives you the okay, and you push the throttle to the stop. With a bellowing growl, that 3350 drags you toward a marker that's invisible until you're moving fast enough to pop the tail up. Then all you can see is the red light that glows on the far end of the flight deck, which first leaps toward you and then disappears beneath the nose. The oleos thump off the end of the deck, and you descend to your cruising altitude.
World War III has come, and Breakeven Four Zero One is at the pointy end of the spear, heading for Russia at a fuel-thrifty 140 knots. You switch from internal fuel to the 300-gallon drop tank beneath the port wing. Then inflate the rubber doughnut that cushions your butt. Every three minutes, by the red glow of your flashlight, put a time tick on the chart, closing the distance from Crete to Rhodes. Every 15 minutes, calculate the fuel you've burned. Watch your altitude!
"In our squadron of 22 pilots, we lost three killed by flying into the ground or water during a 20-month period. I thought this was normal."--Tom Beard, Port Angeles, Washington
The clock on the instrument panel is set to Zulu--what the military calls Greenwich Mean Time. Here in the eastern Mediterranean, the day is two hours ahead of Greenwich, and by 0300 the sky has softened from black to gray. You turn north, threading between the islands, each more visible than the one before, meanwhile smoking a cigarette from the sleeve pocket of your flight suit.
At 0312--right on schedule--the Turkish port of Bodrum appears before you, with its palms and fishing boats and pretty castle on a point of land. Remembering the Naval aviators who splattered themselves onto the brown cliffs of Turkey, you advance the throttle, pull back on the joystick, and clear the castle at a cautionary 200 feet and 170 knots. Feet dry! You power the canopy open, lose a section of chart into the pines, and unroll the Turkish flight chart from the toilet-paper core that keeps the route organized. Your course lies northeast, between the mountains. Legalized flathatting!
At 0407 you leave the town of Usak to starboard, rewarding yourself with an apple from the box lunch supplied by Forrestal's galley. Just after 0500--full daylight now, on a cloudy spring morning--it's feet wet and 50 feet again, across the Black Sea toward Sevastopol.
On your right-hand console is the Black Box. You toggle the switch labeled INSERT/EXTRACT, whereupon the green light goes out and the yellow light comes on. In the MK 7, a battery-driven screw gear moves the 10-pound capsule of uranium 235 into a soccer ball of tamper and explosives; when detonated, they will squeeze the capsule and make it "go critical." Long minutes later, the yellow light goes out and the red light comes on. The MK 7 has become a bomb.
Despite the rubber doughnut, a pain introduces itself to your right buttock. You shift weight to the left cheek, pop an aspirin, and wash it down with orange juice from your thermos, sucked though a tube. The 3350 coughs: port drop tank empty! You gain altitude, switch to internal fuel, tickle the primer, and when the engine sounds okay you switch to the starboard drop tank. You could lose the empty into the Black Sea, but the drag doesn't amount to much. Anyhow, you're supposed to bring the tanks back to Forrestal, in case there's a second launch.
It's 0600. In training, you saved lunch for the long flight home, but this isn't training, and the pain is climbing your spine and spreading into your right thigh. You break open the sandwiches. While chewing the ham-and-cheese, which seem especially dry this morning, you practice flying with your right eye closed.
"We didn't have goggles that went opaque until the 1960s. Shut one eye and then open it after the flash was the idea."--Ron Pickett, Phoenix, Arizona
The military calls it "monocular occlusion." Old-time navigators used the technique, too, closing the right eye while staring into the sun with the left, when finding their latitude with a Jacob's staff. You could walk down a London street in 1600 and spot the old sea captains, their left eyes dead as agate marbles.
Your own bomb isn't the problem: bright suns will be rising all over Russia this morning. Not just Able Dogs, but most of the single-seat turbojets in the U.S. Navy and Air Force have been adapted for low-level attack with nuclear weapons, along with the twin-engine Canberras of the Royal Air Force. Following their strikes, the Strategic Air Command will be along with its big Boeing B-47s and B-52s, each with multiple copies of the MK 15 hydrogen bomb.
In addition to flash, there's the blast from your MK 7. A turbojet whips along at 500 knots or more, putting a respectable distance between it and the explosion, but the Able Dog at combat power is less than half as fast as the shockwave.
Not to worry! You'll honk back on the control stick and loft the MK 7 onto the target while you're still two miles away, meanwhile doubling back the way you came. This is LABS: Low Altitude Bombing System.
Back on Forrestal, you reckoned the loft backward from the target to the release point to the pull-up. Then you found an easily recognized landmark to serve as your Initial Point, which today will be Pokrovskiy cathedral in the center of Sevastopol. You've never actually seen the Sevastopol peninsula, but you've spent hours over the spy-plane photographs, and you know the place as well as Pinecastle bombing range in Florida.
Next you calculated the time that will elapse between the IP and the pull-up. This value--15.5 seconds--has been set in the Black Box. In the Hell Hole--the avionics bay on the Able Dog's belly, behind the oil-cooler flaps and therefore encrusted with half-burned oil--the ground crew set the desired release angle and G force. Now, before Sevastopol comes into view, you must accomplish the following:
[Sorry! Since I published this stuff as an e-book, I find that Amazon objects if the whole thing can be read online for free, so I had to take down the rest of the story. To make up for that, I include a couple of sidebars that went with the original article. There's lots more material in the e-book as published. — Dan Ford]
The constant-G pullup was key, so the loop's radius remained unchanged from the start of the pullup until the bomb released. Writing in Air University Quarterly Review in 1957, shortly after the technique was made public, Colonel John A. Ryan Jr. gave this example of the calculations involved:
A Thunderjet pilot approached his target at 880 feet per second (520 knots), 50 feet off the deck, and began a 4-G pullup. His loop had a radius of 8,000 feet. The bomb was programmed to release when the Thunderjet pointed 40 degrees off the horizontal, separating from the underwing pylon at 1,920 feet above the ground. By this time, the Thunderjet's speed was 809 feet per second (478 knots).
Following gravity's rainbow, the nuke kept climbing, reaching the top of its arc 16.1 seconds later, at an altitude of 4,240 feet. Then it fell, reaching burst altitude 31.4 seconds after parting company from the Thunderjet. Meanwhile, it traveled 22,000 feet horizontally--a bit more than four miles from the release point.
"The flight path of the aircraft is somewhat more complicated to calculate," Colonel Ryan conceded. "The aircraft would be at the top of the [loop] the same time as the bomb reaches its summit and during the remaining 19 or so seconds to burst would be accelerating outbound from the target, placing the aircraft some 35 to 40 thousand feet from the burst." Call it seven miles. In theory, this was sufficient for the Thunderjet to escape a 100 kiloton burst.
A variant called "over-the-shoulder" was used against targets that had no easily-identified IP, or if a straight-away escape was desired. Here, the pilot threw the nuke backwards, after he passed the vertical but before he reached top of the loop. He then completed the loop and pulled out at blast level without changing direction. Over-the-shoulder was easier to perform, but it provided less separation from the blast.
Lofting remains a feasible way to deliver bombs (British Harriers used the technique to attack Stanley airport during the Falklands War) but has passed out of favor for nuclear weapons. In the 1960s, parachute-retarded nukes came into the inventory, giving a turbojet time to escape without acrobatics. On the prop-driven Skyraider, a Boar missile replaced the MK 7 ballistic bomb, so the warhead could be lofted from a lower and safer angle, with the rocket engine boosting it extra miles toward the target.
Heinemann sailed aboard Lexington, interviewing the men who were flying those older planes against the Japanese. Despite its archaic appearance, therefore, the Skyraider was wonderfully laid out, gauges easy to read and switches easy to find. "I've flown about 7,000 hours in as many as 30 different aircraft," says Tom Beard. "Some I can't even remember how to get into. But I think I could get into [a Skyraider] and fly it today."
It went into service as the AD--attack plane from Douglas. In the phonetic alphabet of 1945, the letters were pronounced "Able Dog." When the Navy wanted to show that it too could fly nuclear missions, Douglas strengthened the Skyraider for LABS, and in May 1953 one of these AD-4Bs set a single-engine weight-lifting record of 14,941 lb. (When carrying a nuclear warhead, they were stripped of weapons and armor, the holes covered by a special "300 mph tape"--what the world now knows as duct tape.)
In the 1960s, American and Vietnamese pilots flew the Skyraider on ground-support and rescue missions. In Vietnam also, its pet name became "Spad"--another play on AD, with a wink to the redoubtable wood-and-fabric biplane of World War I. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was trying to rationalize the U.S. military, a process from which the plane emerged with a new, inter-service designation: A-1.
Douglas built 3,180 Skyraiders, in configurations from single-seat bomber to 12-seat evacuation transport. They went out of service in the 1970s, about the time Bureau Number 135300 flew from Tucson's Davis-Monthan graveyard to Pensacola's National Museum of Naval Aviation. It sparkles there now, with no trace of the half-burned oil that encrusted it through a quarter-century of Cold War operations.
Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford
Posted February 2016. Websites © 1997-2016 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved.